Putin holds Assad in one hand, a Syria political bargain in another

Joyce Karam
Joyce Karam
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At the first glance, Russia’s Vladimir Putin receiving Syria’s embattled President Bashar Al-Assad in Moscow looks no more than an act of defiance to legitimize his regime’s rule. But scratching deeper into the Kremlin’s double-thronged strategy in Syria, the move meets its objectives of boosting Assad while seeking to become the main interlocutor for a political solution to the conflict.

As Russia intensifies its air strikes in Syria backed by pro-Iranian militias on the ground, its tactical game in the long run is to distinguish itself from Iran on the negotiating table and emerge as a geopolitical force in orchestrating a settlement. Putin’s strategy is in seeking to make major advances for the Assad regime in the short run, while also attempting to assure key players in the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) who see Iran and not Russia as the main threat in Syria, and whose role is critical to any long term settlement.

While it’s morally bankrupt, Putin’s bet has not changed in the last four years in Syria. His political and logistical support has gone from day one of the crisis to the Assad regime despite the massacres, the destruction and mass exodus of Syrians out of their country. The Assad regime after all is Moscow’s historic ally who shares its fears of democratization in the Middle East, of an increased U.S. role and of the rise of Islamists.

In Syria, Putin is assuring the GCC by the simple fact that he is not Iran and that his objective is preserving the regime and Russia's interests (not Tehran's).

Joyce Karam

In that sense, Assad’s visit to Moscow Tuesday on his first foreign trip since 2011 is a testimony to the close political and military relations between his regime and the Kremlin. The visit also serves as a message of mutual reaffirmation of legitimacy, from Assad to Russia regarding its military campaign, and from Putin to Syria’s embattled leader on his political standing.

But Moscow’s meeting was not just about trading legitimacy, it was an opportunity for Putin to reemphasize, while holding Assad’s hand, the need for a political settlement. Putin referenced this phrase five times in the transcript released by the Kremlin. The Russian leader said : “On the question of a settlement in Syria, our position is that positive results in military operations will lay the base for then working out a long-term settlement based on a political process that involves all political forces, ethnic and religious groups.” Assad, on the other hand, did not speak about a “political settlement” but that “any military action must be followed by political steps.”

For Russia, introducing a political settlement is key to avoid getting dragged into a military quagmire in Syria similar to its past in Afghanistan. Moscow’s calculus is in gaining the upper hand through the military operations by breaking the more moderate opposition and forcing a settlement that favors its interests inside the Assad regime. Such outcome is hopeful at best, given the trajectory of the war in the last four years, and the fact that other players who stepped in to change the calculus (Hezbollah) got dragged instead into the quagmire.

Putin to GCC: I am not Iran

In attempting to become the key interlocutor for any political settlement in Syria, Putin is betting on key advantages: his leverage inside the Assad regime; the decline of U.S. role; assuring the GCC countries.

It is no coincidence that Saudi King Salman was the first to hear from Putin following his meeting with Assad. Putin’s call to Salman is the second in three weeks, and follows the Sochi meetings this month with Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman and with Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces.

While the GCC view on Assad is at complete odds with Russia, Gulf officials would rather negotiate with Moscow than with Iran about his fate and Syria’s. Russia’s own relations with Saudi and UAE has seen improvement following its tacit support for the war in Yemen, and its more vocal backing for Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Sisi and the military establishment in Cairo.

In Syria, Putin is assuring the GCC by the simple fact that he is not Iran and that his objective is preserving the regime and Russia’s interests (not Tehran’s). While Gulf officials see Assad as illegitimate and call for his departure, the threat of a more muscular Iran from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon to Yemen is viewed in most the GCC region as the pressing priority. This message about Iranian dominance was communicated by Saudi Arabia to Assad’s right hand security aide General Ali Mamlouk last July in Jeddah, 20 days after Mohammed Bin Salman’s first visit to Russia. Whether Putin or the Syrian regime itself can peel off Iran’s dominance in Syria at this stage is a an open question. Tehran has only increased its influence since Bashar Assad assumed power in 2000 and approaching military dependency following crisis.

For the GCC, however, it sees little to no loss in testing Putin’s proposition at brokering a settlement. Coming on the heels of the Iranian nuclear deal as well, and continues unease with the Obama administration, the GCC is also diversifying its strategic relations with Russia and China, on the political and economic levels. At the same time key GCC countries are upping their support for the same rebel groups that are being targeted by Russia. In other words, the race for gaining ground leverage is defining the current phase in Syria ahead of another round of negotiations.

For now, Putin’s gambit in hosting Assad while activating channels with the GCC attempts to preserve his longstanding interests in Syria, avoid a military quagmire through seeking a political bargain acceptable to key Arab states, all while establishing more clout and geopolitical influence in the Middle East.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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